It may be fair to say we all wish a doctor could prescribe us a magical pill that was the equivalent of a good workout but alas sometimes the science just isn’t there yet.
But exercise is crucial to physical and mental health. Research has shown that physical activity reduces the risk of depression, anxiety, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and many cancers, and prevents early death.
The problem is in America, less than 5% of adults do at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day and only one in three get in the recommended amount of exercise a week. It’s similar in other parts of the Western world like the U.K. where about a quarter of men and women describe themselves as physically inactive.
And the lack of active adults is responsible for almost 10% of deaths in the United States and more than 2 million deaths globally each year.
But getting people to change their sedentary ways is a challenge in of itself. Research has shown we’re naturally predisposed to hate working out and maintaining motivation to keep physically active is an uphill battle.
That’s why this new study is so cool.
Researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden recruited 444 patients who after six months still hadn’t reached their desired physical activity level and gave them exercise prescriptions or, as they refer to it in the study, “physical activity on prescription”.
The treatment involved three parts: individual consultation with the patient, tailored physical activity with a written prescription, and structured follow-up
What the researchers found was that after six months, 73% had increased their physical activity and 42% were doing 150 minutes or more of exercise weekly.
Although they noticed that how well people took to the prescribed exercise depended on how confident they were in their ability to change their level of physical activity.
But of those who did manage to up their exercise, the researchers found improvements in their weight, waist measurement, blood pressure, blood sugar, and lipids (blood fats) of the participants. They also found their quality of life had improved.
Unsurprisingly, these effects were most pronounced in the patients who initially had the lowest physical activity level.
After the six months there were 190 patients who even after the prescribed treatment plan still weren’t meeting their physical activity levels and those participants were randomly selected for an additional two year physical activity on prescription treatment.
Both treatments – six months and two years – boosted the patients’ physical activity levels, metabolic health, and quality of life, with equivalent cost-effectiveness, noted the study’s lead author Stefan Lundqvist.
The positive health effects also seemed to be independent of changes in their medication.
“In our view, the continuous support, individualization, and long duration of the treatment are key factors in the patients’ success in increasing and maintaining their physical activity,” said Lundqvist.
So with that in mind maybe it’s time more doctors get on a the prescribed exercise bandwagon because if they do it could make a huge difference. Or as Donald Lloyd-Jones, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University, told Elemental: “we would have a dramatic impact on the health of our society”.